RIS CIO of the Year 2020: Sarah Miller
Each year, RIS bestows its CIO of the Year Award upon the industry’s most influential and inventive retail technologist, and we’re pleased to announce that Sarah Miller, chief information officer of Neiman Marcus Group, is taking home this year’s honors.
Miller is being recognized for her work in transforming Neiman Marcus (NMG) into a nimble and personalized luxury retailer. Most significantly, this included her work in shifting the company toward a cloud-first strategy.
“As a company that’s over 100 years old, we had a lot of legacy applications and an aging infrastructure,” Miller tells RIS. “I knew that we had to create an agile architecture mindset.”
When Miller took the reins as CIO in October 2016, her primary focus quickly became improving the company’s problem-management processes and resolving the root causes of its system instability. Her approach honed in on three core goals: building next-gen operations that leveraged automation and process improvements; modernizing NMG’s enterprise-wide technology and tools; and leveraging data efficiently to drive key insights.
Thanks to her efforts, incidents have been reduced by 50%, freeing up more time to focus on automation and proactive operations. By using tools like Tata Consultancy Services' Ignio to automate incident responses and to self-heal, the company has further reduced problems by over 65%.
Miller’s shift to a cloud-first strategy, a process that’s been taking place for the last two years, means that all new applications used by NMG must be cloud based.
After completing a deep dive into every component of NMG’s portfolio, Miller determined how best to migrate each one to a cloud-architected data center or directly into a cloud-native application.
She also established an enterprise architecture organization that set technological standards and charted the company’s course. “I wanted to get out of buying and managing a huge infrastructure,” Miller says. “It didn’t make sense to replace all of our assets, so we started migrating everything we could to the cloud.”
Most significantly, this included eliminating mainframes. Legacy modules running on mainframes, and their applications, instead moved to new solutions on AWS.
“I am so excited to have retired our mainframe,” she says. “I’ve been in technology for over 25 years and have always been saddled with a mainframe — and the cost and overhead that comes with it.”
All mainframe applications were placed into one of four buckets: replace, retire, re-architect, or lift and shift, a process that Miller describes as simple but time-consuming. Keeping an eye on the prize was crucial to their success, which for NMG, was reducing costs as quickly as possible.
“To meet this goal, we needed to ensure that we were not delayed by over-architecting or over-analyzing the solution,” she explains. “Most challenges came with legacy code that needed to be modified for the cloud, but this was minimal.”
The company began with shifting NeimanMarcus.com into a cloud-native, micro-services architecture, which significantly improved the stability and performance of the website and allowed the team to make changes more quickly.
“We had 100% website system availability for the last three holiday seasons,” she says. “And we are ranked number one in website performance against 80 retailers.”
More than half of the company’s applications are currently in the cloud, including those it’s lifted and shifted, applications it’s re-architected to take advantage of cloud native capabilities, and SaaS applications.
Miller cites the establishment of a cloud center of excellence as one of the smartest decisions made by the company. Comprised of NMG associates who manage and govern the cloud platforms, the team automates deployments and manage the environment. Because of this, the company can now spin up new infrastructure environments in minutes rather than months.
Miller has also been responsible for leading IT through NMG’s transformation. As part of this, the company is leveraging data to enable personalization and creating artificial intelligence models using machine learning to help associates create personalized experiences with consumers.
“Without these technologies, it is impossible to scale the experience with our customers and to ensure we are relevant,” she notes.
NMG’s Digital Stylists initiative, launched a year ago, pairs AI with a human touch. Echoing its in-store personal shoppers, NMG’s digital team provides online customers with styling advice, outfit recommendations and access to exclusive perks. While the team uses AI to make product recommendations, these can be adjusted by the stylists, increasing the accuracy of the algorithm.
The program has been well received, and the company is currently in the process of expanding it.
Properly harnessing data and unlocking actionable insight helps retailers not only cut through the commerce cacophony, but better manage their inventory as well. It plays a key role in NMG’s transformation, driving decisions in almost every aspect of the business, including how the retailer communicates with its customers.
“Today, customers have access to nearly all the products we sell somewhere else. They can buy them from other retailers and pure-play online sellers who are trying to capture market share,” Miller says. “Increasingly, they can buy them from the brands themselves, who want to build a more direct relationship with customer.”
“Products are ubiquitous,” she notes, “and no longer differentiate us.”
Instead, companies like NMG must define themselves by the experiences it creates for its customers, both online and in stores.
“By leveraging data and investing in technology to drive personalization, we can extend and scale our reach to more meaningfully engage with both new and existing customers,” Miller says.
While NMG may be transforming into a cloud-first company, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t highly value physical retail. The company has invested in personalized experiences within its Hudson Yard location in New York, where it offers, among other services, a curated product assortment.
Miller says the company has been pleased with the results thus far: One in five customers is participating in paid services, and more are engaging in unpaid services.
The location also serves a valuable pilot for the company’s transformation initiatives, she says, promising to release more details in the future.
What's the first thing you do every morning?
My early mornings are usually focused on exercise. I have been into kickboxing for the last few years so I usually start my morning at a kickboxing class. It’s great exercise and a much-needed stress reliever.
What's the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
Text my adult daughter goodnight. I have been doing this since she left for college. It’s my way to ensure we stay connected.
What's one of the most valuable pieces of business advice you've ever received?
To listen more than I talk. I find that the best ideas and feedback come from listening to others and seeking other points of view. Being open and listening helps me formulate visions and strategies. When I close out others’ ideas, I usually end up regretting it.
Which piece of technology helps you stay productive?
My iPad and iPhone definitely keep me on track. I am completely digital when it comes to personal productivity.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Unicorn Project. I loved the Phoenix Project, and this is the sequel. It’s fun to read about fictional situations that relate to our real-life jobs.